In Houston, they used to think opry was something country-western singers did. In Washington, they used to think opera was something somebody else did. In Houston, they created a fresh product; in Washington, they imported it. Now, as Washington finally searches for a genuine operatic profile, it must look more carefully at these imports -- imports from Houston, of all places, a leader in a revolution that is altering and enlivening what used to be known sleepily as grand opera. Washington had its first taste of David Gockley's Houston Grand Opera in 1975 when the 36-year-old general manager sent the Broadway-bound production of Scott Joplin's jivey Treemonisha to the Kennedy Center. Since then Washington has regularly hummed to Houston's tune: John Philip Sousa's El Capitan and George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess were on the boards at the same time in 1976, then came Carlisle Floyd's Of Mice and Men and the return of Porgy in 1977 and Jerry Herman's Hello Dolly! the next year. A far more traditional opera is coming next, but it will be Houston's most controversial export yet. On Sept. 22 the Washington Opera (which rents space at the Kennedy Center, produces some of its own works and imports from other companies most of the opera here) will unveil the first of four performances of the Houston Grand Opera's production of La Traviata, the most expensive mounting of Giuseppe Verdi's popular work ever undertaken by a company in this country.But it is not only the opulence of the $600,000 physical production, it's the outlandish concept of director Jean Pierre Ponnelle that will stun operagoers here. "Opera is too goddamned expensive to justify anymore," Gockley sputters, "unless we make it relate to more people." The general director is convinced bigger audiences will show up only when opera becomes music-theater and there is as much attention paid to the theatrical side as there is to the musical side. Gockley is willing to take chances to balance the equation -- such as allowing enfants terribles like Ponnelle to tamper with traditional values -- in contemporizing what can sometimes be a stolid art form. "David would rather have something that is hated than something that is bland," Jack Mastroianni, the opera company's assistant-director and director of development, announces with pride. Washington may detest Ponnelle's Traviata as much as New York loathed his Flying Dutchman, which was presented last season at the Metropolitan. Veteran Met watchers cannot recall a production in recent memory that drew as many vociferous boos as Ponnelle's unwieldy Dutchman. His Traviata is just as individualistic. Remember, this is the same Dumas story in which Greta Garbo as Camille died in the arms of Robert Taylor -- a sincere four-handkerchief saga of the good-as-gold courtesan who renounces her only true love and dies bravely of consumption. Not so in Frenchman Ponnelle's vision. He sees the story as playwright August Strindberg might: There is loneliness and dread beneath the glittering surface of this gay and fashionable society. For Ponnelle, the opera's characters are more ghostly than human. During the opening strains of the prelude, the heroine prowls the stage until she discovers her own corpse. Washington may not be ready for Ponnelle's kinks and quirks, but Houston certainly was. When Traviata opened there last spring, it was a cause celebre, receiving unanimous raves from local critics, standing ovations from the public and some heated minority dissension from unlikely quarters. Mrs. Edgar Tobin, a knowledgeable, nationally known patron of the arts, who has given the Metropolitan three of its most unusual productions, who underwrote the Houston Grand Opera's Porgy and Bess , and who generally climbs right out on a limb with Gockley, was heard to mumble during the performance: "I wonder what my money [$20,000] bought? Violetta's third-act costume?" Tobin's sarcasm did not abate after she had digested the unorthodox approach: "I admire David for sticking his neck out and bringing Ponnelle to a part of the country that never heard of him, and it's a very beautiful set. But it's an absolutely lunatic conception, a macabre idea. The Violetta looks fresh out of Charles Addams; they all do. It also costs far too much money." Tobin isn't alone in criticizing Gockley for being a spendthrift. "I wouldn't dream of telling another manager how to run his company," Beverly Sills, director of the New York City Opera, exclaims, "but in this day and age, $600,000 seems like an unconscionable amount of money to spend for one production. I could go along with it at the Met, because they can play Traviata year after year. Houston doesn't play operas in repertory, however. How many times can they rent it, like they're doing in Washington, to make up the money? "It's hard to make a speech saying the arts are suffering when they spend this way. What the New York City Opera gets from the New York State Arts Council isn't even that, it's $500,000, and that's a whole year's grant. Six hundred thousand on one production is an ego trip." Washington will be seeing more of these trips in the future. The Kennedy Center and the Houston Grand Opera will join forces for the first time to co-produce other projects. Next spring the company's production of The Vagabond King will tour the South and then, probably, play the Kennedy Center and, with lots of luck, continue on to Broadway. The two organizations may also jointly produce Carlisle Floyd's next opera, tentatively titled Willie Stark and based on Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men . While no contracts have been signed, the actual commission would be by the Kennedy Center, with the premiere in Houston. Gockley has studied the problems confronting Washington's curious operatic tradition. "If you look at the Washington Opera's record through the various regimes of Perlman, Hebert, Spalding, Strasfogel and London, it appears as a remarkably energetic, resourceful, imaginative regional company," he says. "Once the Kennedy Center got created and the international limelight came down on it, and all the imports in, instead of the community feeling proud of the local company I get the feeling it became a bit of a stepchild. It had to battle the newly ascendant monster for dates, and it got pushed around. In effect, it was the little company being kept down waiting for that big company in the sky to be created." Rumors have been flying for some time now about the creation of a "big" company at the Kennedy Center, presumably under the steuardship of Martin Feinstein. At one point a music director, Lorin Maazel, now conductor of the Cleveland Symphony, was being consulted, as was an artistic administrator, New York manager Matthew Epstein. But it all came to naught, the Kennedy Center board apparently deciding it was too expensive. The latest speculation concerns Feinstein's alleged takeover of the Washington Opera. Feinstein's reply to the allegation: "I'm consulting in helping them plan their seasons, beginning in 1981." In the meantime, Gockley says, the Washington Opera "doesn't have any meaning or value in the larger scheme of things. It has no profile, no plans, it's a company that does four productions a year, tries to rent some decent ones and tries to cast them decently. Although there's tremendous public interest, it just doesn't seem to have any particular point of view. "Martin should create a going concern. The season that was presented this summer at the Terrace Theater by the Washington Opera and the Kennedy Center was a super happening, and I hope it's continued." Uashington, curiously, is the one town that might have lured David Gockley from Texas. He has already turned down an offer from the Metropolitan, and the only other big job -- San Francisco's general manager -- has been filled. "I would have found an offer from Washington awfully interesting and would have investigated the possibilities -- really." Gockley muses, agreeing that he is less attracted to stable, established situations than he is to a raw, unstructured setup on which he can construct a Gockleyesque edifice, as he has done in Houston. It could only happen in America: opera of international stature coming out of Texas. Ironically, it could only have happened in Houston, but it wouldn't have even happened there without an architect whose visionary zeal was coupled with a practical sense of knowing where to build as well as what. Houston is a bursting-at-the-seams, wealthy, growing, polyglot city. It has even less operatic tradition than Washington. Its opera company was founded in 1955 under conductor Walter Herbert and was a typical example of a well-meaning, shlock operation that celebrated "instant opera," a simplified, bastardized offshoot of an intricate, noble art form. In 1970 a frustrated baritone with a business degree from Brown University arrived on the scene. He was 26, and he became the business manager. In two years he was running the show. "David Gockley isn't pushy; he is determined," says one of his assistants. And he had a dream -- to Americanize and popularize what was often scoffed at as a European and elitist art form. Within three seasons after taking charge, "Baby" Gockley, as he was first dubbed by operatic wags, had goosed up the annual budget from a paltry $448,000 to $2 million, and had performances up from 27 to about 200. He commissioned world premieres, presented American premieres, revived unstaged works, broadened the standard repertory. Houston Grand Opera became an octopus with myriad tentacles: performances in the original language, performances in English, excerpted versions for student matinees, a free spring opera festival, al fresco (which is where Treemonisha and The Vagabond King were first seen), a touring company, Texas Opera Theater, which takes productions to Texas, Arizona, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Nevada and Utah, the Opera Studio (in conjunction with the University of Houston) offering young American artists a 40-week "hybrid" experience of advanced instruction combined with professional experience. Last season the Houston Grand Opera played to an estimated audience of 3 million. Its operating budget was $7.8 million and it gave 358 performances, including its regular tours across the United States and abroad. James L. Ketelsen, president of Tenneco, Inc., was deplaning once at Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport when he was confronted with an enormous billboard that read, "The Houston Grand Opera Presents Porgy and Bess." A well of pride overcame the businessman, and as soon as he arrived in Paris, he rushed over to the box office to purchase seats. But the entire run was sold out. Ketelsen was more than proud; he was impressed. When he returned to Houston, he saw to it that Tenneco gave the opera company a quarter-million-dollar grant to subsidize a series of six performances broadcast on National Public Radio. "We needed a catalyst," Jack Mastroianni explains. "Everything was ready to go, the canvas was painted; all we needed was a frame. Porgy and Bess put everything in focus. It was a fabulous show; it tied in with the Bicentennial; we took it around the country and overseas; it was recorded; and it won a Tony on Broadway. "There were all those Houstonians watching the Tonys on TV and suddenly they were seeing David accepting an award coast to coast. It made them pause and say, 'We really have something here.' As pride grew, development grew with it. That's why it was possible to raise the $600,000 for Traviata. We finally got the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. With it came strong corporate funding as well as money from blue-blood Houstonians." "We are liquid," Robert Cizik, the company's aggressive president, reports. "And I'm impressed by the way we responded to the pressures created by the Traviata. Because of prior controls we had established, as things moved out of budgetary limits [the production was initially capitalized at $425,000], we adjusted and got the costs covered. It's because we are financially responsible." "I know a person who never gave a dime to opera in Houston who last year gave $50,000," Tobin says. "And the HGO employes a fairly conservative approach to people. It doesn't knock them down." It doesn't need to when it can seduce with youth, energy and intelligence. Especially youth. David Gockley is the old man around the company. Mastroianni is 30, associate director Robert Buckley is 30, music director John De Main is 33, director of finance Nancy Sasser is 27, production manager Tom Blandford is 32, Texas Opera Theater managing director Jane Weaver is 32, and other administrators are almost all in their early 30s. Opera is usually thought of as a game for older folk: the Metropolitan's Anthony Bliss is 66; his music director James Levine is 36. At San Francisco, Kurt Herbert Adler is 74; his successor, Terry McEwen, will be 53 when he takes charge. Chicago's Carol Fox is 53. The Washington Opera's Gary Fifield is 40. At the Kennedy Center, Martin Feinstein is 58. Gockley is not only young, he is something of a mystery, a cultural hero whose sui generis style both intrigues and puzzles his loyal colleagues and followers. "Nobody really knows him," Mastroianni muses, "he's such a complicated individual. Despite having an excellent staff, David is primarily an autocrat, and he wants to be kept constantly informed and have direct involvement in each aspect of the company. Yet he is not a workaholic, at least not compulsively like Beverly Sills is. He prefers people to respect him, rather than to like him." "David is such a sincere man," Cizik reports. "Too sincere. Sometimes he gets tight and is difficult to communicate with. Typical of intense people, when he gets involved, he clams up." "I've known David to be short and curt," says HGO board member Mary Owen Greenwood, "but people get used to it. David wants to be known as the greatest director of an opera company in the world, and he tries hard at it." Opera is an obsession for Gockley. "The justification for keeping opera alive has to be in relation to all other art forms," he says, "all other activities that are valid -- saving lives by charity going to hospitals or growing lives by charity going to education. We are a charity. How important we are is measured in relation to the quality of what we do and how that quality is delivered to the public. We are becoming an increasingly political phenomenon. But this is not the reason for popularization; rather, it is a desired and natural result of it." Gockley's zeal in striving to make opera accessible to the masses is immediately evident in his choice of repertory with its heavy dependence on music-theater pieces, dramatic entities that aren't just a string of pretty tunes connected by a frivolous story line. All the Houston Grand Opera shows that played Washington had something going for them, in terms of narrative or novelty, aside from the music. The Traviata takes a decidedly individualistic approach to its melodramatic story. Gockley will startle government leaders with his offbeat stance regarding federal support. "I'm fully back on the pendulum swing of the arts' desperately having to stay free of so-called governmental involvement," he says. "I think this way partially because the federal and governmental support of the arts is not going to increase markedly in the next 10 to 20 years, and therefore the only alternative we have is to strengthen our ability to raise private money and to make an impression upon the public that maximizes our earned income, that makes corporations and individuals (and foundations in government to a very limited degree) continue to make contributions annually to keep us going. Freedom in the arts, I believe, is sumbolic of freedom of the country in general. "The whole idea of cultural policy being set on the fifth or sixth floor of Columbia Plaza, which houses the National Endowment for the Arts, is a scary thing. Ivory tower decision-making is very, very touchy, and it has got to be done selectively and in ways that can be universally helpful." One policy of the National Endowment that Gockley supports wholeheartedly is the backing of American artists in the area of opera and musical theater. "We are infused with the 'anything that's imported is better' mentality, especially in opera," he says. "Dance somehow has crossed the bridge. Now opera must too. "The Kennedy Center has made the arts move uptown," the manager says. "Before it was built, Washington was a provincial city like Omaha, maybe even worse. The Kennedy Center, however, exists on imported fare. From the point of view of the Washington-based producing institutions, the monster Kennedy Center as the mighty presenter/importer works against them because it siphons off a lot of the expertise, a lot of the money, a lot of the attention to the importations.From the point of view of the audience, it offers untold diversities in marvelous facilities. And that is not all bad. "I can't complain, because I'm sitting in a position where Washington imported our company six times and gave us a wonderful national showcase. I think it's up to the guys at the Kennedy Center, whenever they bring a La Scala, to try hard to bring interesting American things. In opera they have not. And a lot of the opera house's time is taken up with bookings of inferior commercial productions. Who needs another Peter Pan ?" While Gockley's achievements are celebrated in and out of Texas, there have been complaints his brand of opera is far too concerned with quantity -- getting the Houston Grand Opera stamp on as many far-flung projects as possible -- at the expense of quality, particularly in the company's annual standard repertory productions. "If one looks more at the cargo than the ship, it seems clear that Gockley's expansion and his championing of Americans per se have often been bought at the expense of what happens on the stage," John Ardoin, music critic of the Dallas Morning News, has written. "The bread-and-butter repertory, a company's principal responsibility, has often gotten the short end of the stick. All too frequently a strong musical hand and viewpoint is lacking. The company, especially when it has attempted to come to grips with such perennials as the works of Giuseppe Verdi, has floundered because of lame casts, half-baked concepts and innovation, so it seemed, for its own sake. There has been an unmistakable feeling at times that a short-order cook was trying to prepare a seven-course dinner." Gockley has heard the cry before. "I think there has been a desire to throw out roots which ultimately will make the HGO a much more powerful, influential, valued organization in the next 10 years than an organization without roots. I could have put all our resources into a big star or two in those initial years, and we might have had some wonderful performances, but then where are you? So I decided, in effect, to diversify the company in a way that some might say did not go into the quintessential quality of what was being done in individual performances. But I think the quality has improved and will continue to improve. "People don't remember a season after it's done. It only exists as an obstacle to be overcome with greater successes. Besides, I'm not sure it's wise spending great resources on these transient things called productions. The fact that Maria Callas was in Dallas in 1958 -- what does that mean today?" Gockley makes mistakes, and, unlike the impresarios of yore, sometimes owns up to them. He is a new breed, and with a new wife (his second) and a new child (his first), Gockley is less and less concerned with empire building. The key to the man is his sincerity. He cares about the art form he is determined to popularize. "David is thoroughly committed to making opera entertainment," Mastroianni says. "And despite everything else, he is honest, moral, ethical. In theoretical matters, he is just brilliant. He states his opinions in an exciting, cogent manner. I've heard the story time in and time out, and even I sit there excited. He is inspiring." Yet despite his monolithic resolve and the belief that what he is doing is right, Gockley is not always the picture of rock-solid confidence. He is constantly at odds with himself. "In my personality, my own insecurity is something that has to be combated all the time," he says. "I think it's a 'you're okay -- I'm not okay' kind of thing. I overcome it, or try to, by following my instincts. I need success. I need appreciation. Maybe that's why I have tried so very hard to get it." CAPTION: Picture 1, David Gockley, the Houston Grand Opera's general manager, is willing to risk tampering with traditional operas such as the company's production of La Traviata, right, to encourage the theatrical side of the art form as well as the musical side. "David would rather have something that is hated than something that is bland," the company's assistant director says.; Picture 2, no caption; Picture 3, The Houston Grand Opera's production of Porgy and Bess was presented in Washington in 1976 and 1977. A Paris staging of the Porgy production so excited Tenneco president James L. Ketelsen that he arranged a $250,000 gift to subsidize a series of six performances on National Public Radio.